St Camillus de Lellis – Patron of the sick, died 1614

Columns Msgr John BroadbentJuly 2012 St Camillus was born in Abruzzi in the south of Italy in 1550 when his mother was nearly 60. He grew to be nearly two…


Msgr John Broadbent
July 2012

St Camillus de Lellis - Patron of the sick, died 1614 Archdiocese of WellingtonSt Camillus was born in Abruzzi in the south of Italy in 1550 when his mother was nearly 60. He grew to be nearly two metres tall (six and a half feet). When he was 17 he and his father fought for the Venetians against the Turks. Soon he contracted a painful and repulsive disease in his leg that was to afflict him for the rest of his life.

In 1571 he was admitted as a patient and servant to the San Giacomo hospital for incurables in Rome.

After nine months he was dismissed for his continual quarrelling and he returned to soldiering.

Throughout his life, he often talked of his sinfulness which seems to have consisted of constant gambling. The small amount of money he earned went on this vice and nearly all his personal belongings were pawned to pay his debts.

An inspired conversion
He was brought tearfully to his knees when finally in 1574 he lost everything, even the shirt off his back. At the time he was working on the building of a new Capuchin monastery at Manfredonia.

He heard a moving sermon from the superior as if addressed to him. He begged to become a Capuchin but was turned down because of his suppurating leg.

He then returned to the San Giacomo hospital with several companions and so impressed hospital board members that they appointed him superintendant.

This was a fairly brutal period for hospitals. Even the best used blood leeching, several patients slept in the same bed and sheets were often not changed for months regardless of the number of bleeding and diseased patients who slept in them.

The Apostle of Rome St Philip Neri, was Camillus’ spiritual director and confessor. He encouraged him and his followers to exercise their compassion and solicitude in the often rather sordid surroundings.

St Philip encouraged Camillus to be ordained and to start founding his congregations of priests and brothers, the Ministers of the Sick (now known as Camillians).

Camillus decided to break his connection with San Giacomo and, with his followers, began nursing in the bigger hospital of the Holy Ghost. The whole of Rome was amazed at the dedication of these men.

A series of hospitals
In 1585 Camillus hired a large house and he and 12 followers ran their own hospital. Three years later he was invited to Naples to establish another house. Certain galleys in the harbour were infested with plague, but the Ministers of the Sick went on board and nursed the sailors. Two of his companions died of the plague.

Camillus showed a similar charity in Rome when a pestilential fever caused great numbers of deaths. In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV made the young society into a religious order, recognising their service to the sick without distinction.

St Camillus was afflicted with many physical sufferings during his entire adult life. The disease in his leg lasted 46 years, and he endured a rupture for 38 years, two sores in the sole of one of his feet which gave him great pain and, for a long time before he died, he suffered a great distaste for food and an inability to retain it.

Despite this, he would let no one tend him. Even when bedridden he would often crawl to patients at night and ask them if they needed anything.

Among the many improvements Camillus made in the care for the dying were the conditions surrounding death and burial. He discovered that, in many hospitals, some patients were still alive when they were buried. So he ordered his religious to continue praying for souls still in their agony for at least 15 minutes after the patients seemed to have drawn their last breath and to keep their faces uncovered for as long as possible to avoid smothering them before they actually died.

Camillus oversaw the establishment of 15 houses of his brothers and eight hospitals. He laid down the canonical leadership of his order in 1607 and assisted at its general chapter in 1613.

He then helped the new superior general in his visitation encouraging the brothers in their vocation.

At Genoa he took seriously ill, dying on July 14, 1614, aged 64.

Camillus was canonised in 1746 and, Pope Leo XIII declared him patron of the sick with St John of God who was almost a contemporary and who had founded a similar order in Portugal, and of nurses and nursing associations by Pope Pius XI.

Perhaps many of us who have family members with gambling addictions could pray to St Camillus that they may be freed and, in turn, lead fruitful lives.